Are donors blind to the on-the-ground realities of the Sahel? This is what Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan suggests in a recent article, in which he puts into question the policies of external actors in the Sahel and draws a parallel between military and development players there. According to his analysis, they both “face the same challenge of unfamiliar local contexts—a challenge in which the context often winds up taking revenge.”
Donors: an overabundance of knowledge
His observation that development players suffer “incompetence with regard to local contexts” is one of the main arguments—and the inspiration for the title—of his recent book La revanche des contextes (“The Revenge of the Contexts”), which represents several decades of research in the field.
It should be noted that Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan discusses a specific but significant aspect of donor activity, particularly in the Sahel, which he calls “social engineering” and which he defines as “all the planned intervention mechanisms developed by experts and aimed at setting up or modifying institutions and/or behaviors in various contexts.”
His argument is bound to be disconcerting for donors. Is it plausible that the latter are so unfamiliar with local contexts—particularly those of the Sahel—despite their large-scale plans of action on the ground, their in-house research and knowledge-production departments, and their frequent involvement in knowledge-bank or learning-institution initiatives? Not to mention that their resources give them access to the top specialists and the best information available. Inside development cooperation agencies, it’s more frequent to hear about an overabundance of studies, information, and knowledge of all kinds than about their scarcity.
A topic as old as development
An initial answer to our question is surely related to the type of knowledge on which donors put priority, given their preference for macro-analyses, economics, cross-cutting comparisons, and quantitative data, etc. This approach can lead to under-appreciating a certain need for detailed socio-anthropological knowledge specific to particular areas.
Development cooperation agencies in fact recommend that on-the-ground knowledge be integrated into the design and implementation of development cooperation actions. This is a long-standing and recurrent recommendation, as is the use of systematic background studies prior to operations, which are highly promoted in areas of fragility as a “good practice.”
We can see that, as far back as 1951, in American aid programs in India, “specialists” of the local context have been included in project teams (cf. “The Use of Anthropologists in Foreign Aid Programs”, Human Organization, Vol 23, 1963). This approach has reoccurred in various forms. Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan takes it up again in his book, in which he recommends the use of “contextual experts,” i.e., local actors capable of making assessments with hindsight, and actors of change. We cannot but highly advise this type of system, which helps strengthen on-the-ground knowledge within cooperation actions, particularly in the innovative form advocated by Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan.
However, making specialists on the ground part of the team is often difficult to put into practice, as they have trouble finding their place in the operational systems. This brings us to the main thesis of our article: the problem for donors is not primarily a lack of access to on-the-ground knowledge, but rather the ability to make proper use of this knowledge in their operational activity. Two mechanisms are at work here to explain the background to this observation.
Accountability far from the field
The first mechanism has to do with to the nature of the accountability of development cooperation actions. At all the stages of a development action (from design to outcomes), we can find many information flows. These come in the form of concept notes, project notes, indicator tables, reporting, and evaluations, etc. They are produced and then put to collective review in order to fuel this accountability process.
These information flows are becoming denser and more complex, a significant phenomenon probably in common among all donors in recent decades. However, when it comes to development cooperation with countries such as the Sahel States, the chain of accountability extends only to the donors’ own bodies and to their principals: hierarchical bodies, decision-making committees, supervisory ministries, parliaments, civil society, etc.
This imbalance in accountability affects the processing of information and knowledge. For example, knowledge specific to a context can be complex and unfamiliar to these bodies: this knowledge has to compete—often to its disadvantage—with all sorts of information of a different nature, such as strategic positioning, dashboards, sectoral or thematic priorities, innovative nature, complementarity with other policies or actions, expected impacts, and others. The center of discussion and decision-making, from start to finish of an action, is shifted to “distant” bodies that have their own agenda. This leads to a gradual filtering of the usage of the detailed knowledge specific to the context under question.
Does lack of knowlege facilitate action?
A second mechanism is to be found in the priority given to action over knowledge, which is part of the culture of development cooperation institutions. In an ideal world, action is all the easier when all the dimensions of the context of the action are known. However, reality is quite different: in terms of social engineering (and here we are speaking only of this), detailed on-the-ground knowledge can have the effect of casting doubt on the action, or even have a paralyzing effect. Some analysts (Mark Hobart and Jean-Pierre Jacob) have gone so far as to state that a veil of ignorance facilitates action.
While a simplified theory of change can easily highlight the positive impacts of an action, because in-depth knowledge of a context is pertinent to the complexity of the real situation, such knowledge can lead to making decisions and trade-offs more difficult. Indeed, how can we take the right action when we know that what is done will result in winners and losers, that its impact on inter-group relations will be indecisive, or that incentives may be partially misused?
It’s thus often more difficult to act with full knowledge of the facts than with a stylized understanding of the context on the ground. Nonetheless, this “paradox” does have its limits. If knowledge can be frustrating, it is also because it can lead to plans of action that, in view of operational constraints, often fall outside the scope of feasible responses. An example is when plans of action may deviate from the sacrosanct instrument of action that the “project” represents in the world of development.
This clash, in the field of social engineering, between knowledge and action is often due to the fact that on-the-ground knowledge often leads to the recommendation of actions that are too complex, too low-scale, too patience-demanding, too negotiated, too risky, too local, too uncertain, or too original to fit within the vision of development players. For such specific responses derived from on-the-ground knowledge to be possible, the latter should be a requirement when determining the scope of what actions are possible. This is the prerequisite for the full proper use of knowledge. Failing that, knowledge is often used in an “instrumental” and limited way, i.e., it is used only when it clarifies, rounds out, or legitimizes a partially predefined action.
Toward better use of knowledge
These two hypotheses—unbalanced accountability and priority of action over knowledge—tend to shed light on the paradox of donors’ (apparent) lack of on-the-ground knowledge. These mechanisms seem to be partly responsible for the success of the “traveler models,” which are poorly adapted to the field and which Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan analyzes in his book.
To follow up on Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan’s initial argument drawing a parallel between the development cooperation and military worlds, it would be interesting to see whether the hypotheses of unbalanced accountability and priority on action, which stem from the experience of social engineering for development, can also help provide explanations in the field of military interventions.
The ways to remedy this insufficient use of on-the-ground knowledge can be implicitly deduced from this analysis. Rebalancing accountability so that it is directed more toward local stakeholders is a first step. This would require that the operators in the field be not merely providers of information but also co-decision-makers in social engineering. A second approach is to reverse the priority of action over knowledge. In this way, by analyzing the situation on the ground, it will be possible to expand the forms of development cooperation more broadly, in particular above and beyond the project under question.
If this is done, would we be able, in turn, to take our revenge on the contexts?